Language Log literally changes your brain

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Emily Hopkins, Deena Weisberg, and Jordan Taylor, "The seductive allure is a reductive allure: People prefer scientific explanations that contain logically irrelevant reductive information", Cognition 2016:

Previous work has found that people feel significantly more satisfied with explanations of psychological phenomena when those explanations contain neuroscience information — even when this information is entirely irrelevant to the logic of the explanations. This seductive allure effect was first demonstrated by Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson, and Gray (2008), and has since been replicated several times (Fernandez-Duque, Evans, Christian, & Hodges, 2015; Minahan & Siedlecki, 2016; Rhodes, Rodriguez, & Shah, 2014; Weisberg, Taylor, & Hopkins, 2015). However, these studies only examined psychological phenomena. The current study thus investigated the generality of this effect and found that it occurs across several scientific disciplines whenever the explanations include reductive information: reference to smaller components or more fundamental processes. These data suggest that people have a general preference for reductive information, even when it is irrelevant to the logic of an explanation.

The press release for this paper quotes Emily Hopkins:

“If you do a search for the phrase ‘literally changes your brain,’ you will get thousands of hits,” said Hopkins, who completed this work while a postdoc at Penn. “‘Meditation literally changes your brain,’ ‘marriage literally changes your brain.’ People are really fascinated by this.” Everything we do changes our brain in some way, Hopkins points out, and such headlines are illogical and often irrelevant to the actual scientific findings.

It's true, though I'm disappointed that Google is only giving me an (inaccurate estimated) count of 5,350 for that phrase. But "actually changes your brain" gets another 9,260. And it's amazing that such phrases get any traction at all, since even having a fleeting episodic memory of X must change your brain, unless it turns out that an especially rigorous form of dualism is true.

A few previous LLOG posts on this general topic:

"The Agatha Christie Code: Stylometry, serotonin and the oscillation overthruster", 12/26/2005
"The brave new world of computational neurolinguistics", 12/27/2005
"Blinded by neuroscience", 6/28/2006
"Distracted by the brain", 6/6/2007
"Cause after all, he's just a vasopressin receptor", 9/5/2008
"Preventing Explanatory Neurophilia", 4/27/2009
"Explanatory Neurophilia ≅ Physics Envy?", 4/5/2010
"Prestigious nonsense, tendentious frames", 12/30/2012

And I'd be remiss in my duty to our readers if I didn't cite Andrew Lo and Mark Mueller, "WARNING: Physics Envy May Be Hazardous To Your Wealth", arXiv 2010.


  1. MattF said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 9:16 am

    Just imagine the reaction if psychological phenomena didn't have any physical effect on the brain.

    [(myl) Spooky!]

  2. Guy said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    Dualism isn't the only other possibility. Maybe some people keep their memories in their kidneys.

    [(myl) Spookier!]

  3. bks said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 4:04 pm

    The kidneys make piss and the brain makes epistemology.

  4. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 5:19 pm

    Everyone who has read Aristotle knows that the seat of reason is in the heart.

    Seriously, though, does 'changes your brain' just mean 'changes the state of your brain'? I would read it as something more like 'changes the structure of your brain', which is a bit more informative.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 6:04 pm

    I wonder how many of the subjects were from "Western" cultures, which are sometimes said to be relatively reductionistic. Maybe the results would be different in different cultures.

  6. wanda said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 6:34 pm

    Andrew, if you remember anything that occurs in Language Log, particularly after a day or so, then it does literally changes the (micro)structure of your brain.

  7. Rubrick said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 9:56 pm

    Interesting question, Jerry, given that the brains of Asians are literally different from those of Westerners!

  8. Robert said,

    August 26, 2016 @ 12:31 am

    @bks the kidneys make the piss and the brain takes it.

  9. Chris Eagle said,

    August 26, 2016 @ 1:32 am

    If we want to be charitable here: saying "X changes your brain" generally means "we have managed to observe and measure changes in brain caused by X". Which is worth getting at least a little excited about.

  10. Rodger C said,

    August 26, 2016 @ 6:47 am

    The allure of manure.

  11. Brett Reynolds said,

    August 26, 2016 @ 7:02 am

    if you click through the results, google comes clean on p. 13: there are 124 results, including this page.

  12. leoboiko said,

    August 26, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    @Chris Eagle: The problem is that, very frequently, finding a correlation of attribute X with some brain area is postulated as evidence that X is big, important, biologically determined and inevitable, relevant, useful etc. But finding the physical implementation of X has no bearing on any of those things. It just means you found how does X look like in hardware.

    The correlation-causation fallacy also runs rampant in pop-sci reports of brain research. Suppose you found that women's brains relate differently to makeup, or Asian brains to math. This is often reported as if it was proof that women are biologically predisposed to like makeup, or Asians math. It's not. If you raise women in a culture where they're taught to care about makeup, or Asians about math, then of course this socialization will be visible in the brain somewhere. Generally speaking, if people who X have a brain that Y, it may be that Y brains cause the X behavior, but it might as well be that the X behavior cause Y-style brains, or even that an unknown third factor Z causes both X behavior and Y brains for entirely unrelated reasons.

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